This Nonprofit Helps Athletes With Disabilities Prepare

In this Nov. 5, 2017, photo, a marathoner with a physical disability jogs along the route. (Photo by: Allison Weintraub)

Every Tuesday at dusk, among bustling crowds of tourists and runners, Engineer’s Gate in Central Park serves as a meeting ground for athletes with disabilities from the non-profit organization Achilles International.

The organization pairs the athletes with abled-bodied volunteers for training assistance in running. Opportunities are offered in their 65 international locations, including the United States. Members’ disabilities range from blindness to mobility impairment, autism and brain injury.

Michael Anderson, the director of Achilles International’s New York City chapter, said the organization has one simple mission: Empowerment. “We’re all about our member athletes,” said Anderson. “And sticking to our mission of empowering athletes to just do great things through running and athletic achievement.”

One of those achievements is running in the New York City Marathon. The organization aided more than 200 national and international members this year as they prepared to run across the five boroughs.

“It’s the one day I think where every average person gets to feel like a superstar,” said James McEnroe, a runner who is visually and hearing impaired. McEnroe has practiced for four months and this was his second marathon. Due to his impairments, he needed guides to assist him in navigating the road.

Mauricio Blandino, 60, is another member who ran the marathon. He joined Achilles in 2012, a year after he suffered a brain injury. His mobility was affected and it took a toll on his walking coordination. He finally started jogging in 2013 after nine months of training with Achilles International. He still deals with specific difficulties that require special attention when he runs.

“I can’t relax when I run because I’m so focused on the mechanics,” said Blandino. His right foot has spasticity, a constant contraction in the muscles that causes stiffness and tightness. This condition causes Blandino to lose control of how the foot lands.

Blandino’s vision was also affected – his eyes’ ability to work together when looking at nearby objects was imparied. “I can’t look down and focus on pace,” he said. The ground becomes a blur when he looks beneath his feet while running. A guide must run with Blandino to prevent himself from tripping.

For other runners with brain injuries like John Pierre, 47, a guide is needed in case of a seizure, and to keep up his motivation. “With Achilles, I overcome the disabilities and get the goals I want,” said Pierre.

Overcoming those disabilities has led Pierre to participate in six marathons since beginning running in 2012. Sunday’s marathon was his seventh. In two weeks he’ll run in the New York Road Runners 60K on Nov. 18. He hopes this is all a start of something big. “My all-time dream is to one day be in the Runners Hall of Fame,” he said.

It’s a dream Pierre hopes to accomplish in honor of his mom, who passed away in October. “I’m going to honor my mom in everything that I do,” said Pierre. “It’s all for my mom now.”

When the gun went off Sunday, McEnroe joined Pierre in a path to a new chapter in their lives. It’s a chapter McEnroe hopes includes crossing finish lines in national and international marathons. “I’m at a point in my life where I want to start finishing things that I started,” said McEnroe. “And not give up anymore on anything.”

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